TACOMA, Washington — Developing countries were among those affected most by the COVID-19 pandemic, as many of them had weak healthcare systems at its start. As such, frontline services were struggling to obtain proper staffing and resources. Uganda is a prime example of this. Poverty and healthcare in Uganda often go hand in hand, as the most vulnerable populations are often restricted from quality healthcare. This is especially true for Ugandans living with physical or mental disabilities.
The Tunaweza Children’s Center: Helping Uganda
The Tunaweza Children’s Center in Kampala, Uganda focuses on helping children with disabilities. It was founded by two friends after a mother in the community was struggling to help her special needs child. The center works directly with special needs children and helps caretakers develop the skills and resources they need. With the help of volunteers, the professional staff at the center provide occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy.
Kate Thomas, a current Master of Public Health and Doctor of Physical Therapy candidate at Arcadia University, experienced the center firsthand. During her sophomore year at Northeastern University in Boston, Thomas spent six months as a volunteer in the center.
While she may not have noticed an immediate connection between poverty and healthcare in Uganda, Thomas did notice that disabilities are often met with skepticism. “It wasn’t so much that it was a class issue, but that disabilities as a whole were not understood,” Thomas said in an interview with The Borgen Project. “It was not uncommon for people to think of both intellectual and physical disabilities as a curse from God. That’s what some of my coworkers told me.”
Thomas’s trip was five years ago and these views did not express those of everyone she worked with, but it is still a common belief across Uganda. According to The Irish Times, disabilities are currently still regarded as a punishment for a committed sin in Uganda. In these instances, poverty and healthcare in Uganda are often correlated, as Ugandan children with disabilities are often denied healthcare and are less likely to be enrolled in school. The disabled community in Uganda represents some of the most vulnerable in the country.
Uganda currently has a population of more than 40 million people. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics Census Report of 2016, 4.5 million Ugandans live with a disability, 5% of whom are children. Further, these statistics may be under-reported due to the negative implications of being diagnosed with a disability.
Thomas said she was able to notice a relationship between poverty and healthcare in Uganda, as the quality of care and accessibility were drastically different for those with disabilities compared to those of wealthier backgrounds.
Additionally, healthcare resources are limited for people with disabilities. The country only has one national mental health facility, which supports both children and adults. Typically, disabilities are treated through witch doctors and other alternative medicinal options.
“At the time, the school I worked at, I believe, was either one or two of three of its kind in the country,” Thomas told The Borgen Project. “There were students and families who traveled hours every day just to go to the school.”
According to a study from the National Institute of Health, medical supplies are also scarce among the country’s health facilities. The government funds 64% of emergency medical care. Education is also lacking. The World Bank reported in 2013 that only 35% of healthcare workers could identify common health conditions in their area.
Impact of COVID-19 on People With Disabilities
The COVID-19 pandemic had a strong impact on poverty and healthcare in Uganda, especially for people with disabilities. According to a report from Taylor and Francis Online Journal, COVID-19 lockdown measures limited public transportation modes. This caused difficulties for caregivers helping their patients. It was also more difficult for some families to access their rehabilitation facilities. This especially hurt people with disabilities, who already suffered from limited access to facilities and difficulties with caregivers.
Despite setbacks felt from the COVID-19 pandemic, poverty has decreased and healthcare has improved in recent years. According to UNICEF, mortality rates for children less than five years old decreased by 50% between 2007 and 2019. Organizations like UNICEF continue to try to reduce that number.
When Thomas graduated from Northeastern in 2019, she said there was an established connection between Northeastern and the Tunaweza Children’s Center. She especially encouraged more students to volunteer in Uganda. As the COVID-19 pandemic takes its toll, it is essential to encourage leaders to support initiatives acknowledging the tie between poverty and healthcare in Uganda.
– Monica Mellon